Rush is on to de­velop vac­cine for coron­avirus

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Ken All­tucker

Drug­mak­ers are hus­tling to make a vac­cine to counter the rapidly spread­ing res­pi­ra­tory virus that has sick­ened at least 1,975 peo­ple in China and five in the United States.

The Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health has part­nered with a Bos­ton-area com­pany, Moderna, on a vac­cine tar­get­ing the novel coron­avirus. A Penn­syl­va­nia biotech­nol­ogy com­pany, Inovio, also se­cured a $9 mil­lion grant from Nor­way-based Coali­tion for Epi­demic Pre­pared­ness In­no­va­tions to de­velop a vac­cine. The com­pany al­ready is de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine for Mid­dle East res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome, or MERS, an­other type of coron­avirus.

Of­fi­cials with the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases say they can quickly de­velop a vac­cine be­cause Chi­nese sci­en­tists rapidly se­quenced the virus’s genome.

“The agency has the fund­ing and tech­nol­ogy,” said An­thony Fauci, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases. “Bar­ring any bu­reau­cratic or reg­u­la­tory holdups, which I don’t think will hap­pen, we can al­most cer­tainly get into phase one in three months.”

Even if the vac­cine is tested rapidly, it might not come in time to slow the out­break. Pub­lic health ef­forts to limit the spread of the virus and treat those who are in­fected will have a more im­me­di­ate ben­e­fit.

The virus, which orig­i­nated in Wuhan, has spread to sur­round­ing re­gions in China, South Korea, Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore, Hong Kong, Ma­cao, Tai­wan, Thai­land, Viet­nam and the U.S.

As health of­fi­cials work to limit the spread and get med­i­cal care to peo­ple in re­gions hard hit by the coron­avirus out­break, sci­en­tists, gov­ern­ment and drug­mak­ers are racing to de­velop new vac­cines and other drugs.

An­thony Fauci, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases, said sci­en­tists need to se­cure sam­ples of the coron­avirus from China so they can be­gin test­ing. He is op­ti­mistic Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties will soon al­low re­lease of the cru­cial sam­ples, which also can be used to de­velop other drugs such as mon­o­clonal an­ti­bod­ies.

Once the agency ob­tains sam­ples, sci­en­tists can test the vac­cine in an­i­mals, then in hu­mans. An ini­tial “phase one” study of about 20 pa­tients would eval­u­ate whether the vac­cine is safe. Of­fi­cials would then need to de­cide whether to pur­sue a larger study to test the vac­cine’s ef­fec­tive­ness.

“Get­ting the vac­cine can­di­date in the lab­o­ra­tory is the shorter and eas­ier part,” said Wil­liam Schaffner, a Van­der­bilt Univer­sity School of Medicine pro­fes­sor of pre­ven­tive medicine. “It is test­ing it in peo­ple to make sure it’s safe and it’s likely to work that takes much more time and much more money.”

Re­searchers have a head start from work on vac­cines for other coro­n­aviruses re­spon­si­ble for past outbreaks of se­vere acute res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome, or SARS, and MERS.

Re­searchers know the sim­i­lar­i­ties shared by the fam­ily of viruses, but “the parts that are dif­fer­ent from virus to virus are those crit­i­cal parts that are im­por­tant for pro­tec­tion,” Fauci said.

His agency will de­velop the vac­cine us­ing a tech­nol­ogy called mes­sen­ger RNA plat­form, which in­struct cells to make pro­teins. The newer tech­nol­ogy will al­low the agency to de­velop one more quickly. Dur­ing the SARS out­break in 2002-2003, it took about 20 months to pre­pare a vac­cine for clin­i­cal trial, Fauci said.

The SARS vac­cine has not been needed be­cause the virus has not re­turned, but it is avail­able if it does.

An­other pos­si­bil­ity, Fauci said, is to de­velop a uni­ver­sal vac­cine to at­tack all types of coro­n­aviruses, a sort of in­sur­ance pol­icy when the next one is trans­mit­ted from an an­i­mal to a hu­man.

For now, the agency has pri­or­i­tized devel­op­ment of a uni­ver­sal flu vac­cine, which gets less at­ten­tion even though the more com­mon ill­ness is far more lethal than the coron­avirus. To­day, flu vac­cines are made each year and tai­lored to match strains sci­en­tists project will cir­cu­late be­fore the sea­sonal flu sea­son be­gins.

CDC es­ti­mates the flu this sea­son has sick­ened at least 15 mil­lion and caused 8,200 deaths, an ill­ness that dwarfs the harm from coron­avirus.

“In com­par­i­son to flu, the im­pact on the new coron­avirus in the United States will be triv­ial,” Schaffner said. “It’s new, it’s novel, it’s mys­te­ri­ous. It started in an ex­otic place. We are all en­er­gized. So it is no great sur­prise the gen­eral pub­lic is in­ter­ested.”

WU HONG/EPA-EFE

Peo­ple wear masks pos­ing for pho­tos while the For­bid­den City, seen from a view­ing deck of Jing­shan Park in Bei­jing, China, is closed.

Fauci

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